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History in the Movies, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”

History in the Movies, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois; she writes a syndicated column on historical films.

“More of this is true than you would believe.”

That’s the opening line of “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” a quirky film highlighting the U.S. military’s affinity for New Age philosophy and psychic beliefs. The film has oddball characters, a farfetched plot, and soldiers engaging in strange psychic experiments, including the attempt to kill goats by just staring at them.

Could any of this actually be true?

Well, sort of. The characters and the plot are highly fictionalized. As for the U.S. military dabbling in strange psychic stuff? Yeah, that part is largely true. Here’s the lowdown.

Q. Does the military have a Goat Lab where goats are stared to death?

A. Not exactly. Jon Ronson, the British journalist who wrote the book, “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” learned of a top-secret Goat Lab at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Ronson also heard rumors of soldiers who used psychic powers to kill the goats.

But the goats at Goat Lab ultimately weren’t there to get stared at. They had a more practical — and bloody — function. The goats, one-by-one, were shot in the leg, in order to provide hands-on surgical experience for Special Forces trainees.

Q. Ewan McGregor plays a journalist in the film. Is he supposed to be Ronson?

A. McGregor’s character is called Bob Wilton, and he’s only loosely based on Ronson. The real Ronson, unlike the film’s Wilton, never shared a madcap Iraqi adventure with one of the army’s “psychic spies.”

Q. George Clooney plays the offbeat Lyn Cassady. Was he a real person?

A. No. Cassady is a composite of different people Ronson interviewed for the book. One inspiration for the character was Sgt. Glenn Wheaton, who served in a Special Forces paranormal group in the 1980s called “Project Jedi.” It was designed, Wheaton told Ronson, to create “supersoldiers with superpowers,” such as the ability to become invisible.

Guy Savelli was another model for Cassady. Though he now owns a dance studio in Cleveland, Savelli had once worked with Special Forces at Fort Bragg, teaching soldiers a form of “paranormal martial arts.” He also taught them “remote influencing,” the art of using one’s mind to influence others. It was Savelli who apparently killed a goat at Goat Lab by simply wishing it dead.  Savelli later told Ronson that he had also performed the feat on a hamster.

Q. Jeff Bridges plays Bill Django, a hippiefied officer who created the “New Earth Army” unit. Did he exist?

A. Django is based on Lt. Col. Jim Shannon. In the late 1970s, Shannon, a Vietnam veteran, dived headlong into the New Age and human potential movements, looking for ideas to reinvigorate a demoralized post-Vietnam military. After months spent in meditation, naked hot tub sessions, and primal arm wrestling, Shannon returned to the army and wrote a confidential paper, which he called the “First Earth Battalion Manual.”  There he sketched out his vision of the future American soldier. They would be “Warrior-Monks,” Shannon said. They would enter hostile countries cradling baby lambs. They would greet people with hugs and “sparkly eyes.” And they would develop psychic powers — read minds, walk through solid objects, sense auras, see into the future, and stop and start their own hearts.

Believe it or not, the army loved his ideas. Unlike in the film, though, Shannon never trained a specific unit. But his “First Earth Battalion Manual” became legendary in the army, and even inspired the famous “Be all that you can be” Army recruitment slogan.

Q. Did Shannon really encourage the use of LSD for his “Warrior Monks?”

A. No, he didn’t. But as early as the 1950s, the U.S. military was experimenting with mind-altering drugs like LSD. One such experiment ended tragically. In 1953, the CIA secretly slipped LSD into the drink of a civilian scientist employed by the Army, in order to study the drug’s effects. A week later the man leapt to his death from a 10th story building. The CIA’s involvement was hushed up for two decades.

Q. The film shows Django (Shannon) getting kicked out of the military. True?

A. Never happened. The real Jim Shannon stayed in the military until retirement. Interestingly though, in 2002 he was brought out of retirement by military brass, who were looking for “creative ideas” in fighting the War on Terror.

Q. Did the War on Terror inspire more psychic experimentation in the military?

A. That’s what Ronson believes, and what the film suggests. After 9/11 the CIA was said to be using psychics to try to predict the next terrorist target. Guy Savelli, the man credited with staring a goat to death, was called back to Fort Bragg to teach soldiers how to use “the stare” to get prisoners to talk. And Ronson believes that the harsh treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere both built on and corrupted the ideals found in Shannon’s “First Earth Battalion.” The Jedi warriors turned to the dark side.

Q. Where can I find more information?

A. Ronson’s book is great. Or find his 2004 British documentary – “Crazy Rulers of the World” — on YouTube, to see the real-life characters in “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” The truth here is even stranger than the fiction.

You can reach Cathy Schultz at cschultz@stfrancis.edu.

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